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6 Notable Facts About the 2016 Hurricane Season

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A fisherman in Port-a-Piment, Haiti, repairs repairs his net on a beach damaged by Hurricane Matthew. Image Credit: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

 
Thanks to warm waters and an assist from La Niña, this year’s hurricane season was an active one, and coastal residents have been on edge all summer. But now the winds of winter are slowly winning the battle between the Arctic and the tropics, forcing the Atlantic Ocean’s hurricane season to finally calm down. In honor of 2016’s season, here are some things you might have missed about this year’s storms.

1. THE 2016 HURRICANE SEASON WAS THE MOST ACTIVE SINCE 2012.

Storm tracks for the 2016 Atlantic Hurricane Season. Image Credit: NOAA/NHC

 
If it seemed like we had to deal with a lot of storms this year, it’s only because the past couple of years have been relatively quiet. A “normal” hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean produces 12 named storms, six of which you’d expect to strengthen into hurricanes and three of those hurricanes would reach Category 3 intensity (115 mph) or stronger.

The 2016 Atlantic Hurricane Season, which officially ran from June 1 through November 30, saw 15 named storms, seven hurricanes, and three major hurricanes. The season began with an unusual hurricane in January, an early-season storm in May, and a string of storms that formed throughout the warm summer and fall months. But Hurricane Otto, which formed toward the end of November, was likely the last storm to form in the year.

2. LA NIÑA HELPED ATLANTIC STORMS THRIVE.

A seasonal sea surface temperature anomaly map showing the La Niña conditions in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Image Credit: NOAA/ESRL/PSD

 
One of the major factors that allowed one storm after another to percolate in the Atlantic was the presence of mild La Niña conditions in the eastern Pacific Ocean. It seems odd that cooler-than-normal waters in another ocean would have an impact on the hurricane season across the continent, but everything is connected. La Niña—the presence of abnormally cool waters near the equator in the eastern Pacific Ocean—keeps thunderstorm activity in this part of the world to a minimum, reducing the strong winds that flow east over the Caribbean and typically tear apart tropical cyclones before they have a chance to form. The absence of these winds allow storms to build.

The past couple of hurricane seasons were stifled by the opposite phenomenon—an El Niño—which created unusually high levels of wind shear over the Atlantic. Many of the storms that formed this year also had to battle strong wind shear, but it usually let up enough for most of them to strengthen before hitting land.

3. THE SOUTHEAST TOOK A BEATING THIS YEAR.

The United States only saw a handful of landfalls over the past couple of years, but this year was different. Five of the ten storms that made landfall somewhere around the Atlantic Ocean this year hit the United States, and all of those storms came ashore either in Florida or South Carolina. There’s no particular reason that storms kept targeting the same areas this year—each storm was different and they all took advantage of different environmental factors that allowed them to hit the same spots over and over again.

Unfortunately, none of the five landfalling storms took the right track to help alleviate the historic drought that’s plaguing interior parts of the southeast. Tropical cyclones that come ashore along the northern Gulf Coast or the southern Atlantic coast are a big source of rainfall for states like Alabama and Georgia, but this year drought-stricken areas have had to go without this plentiful supply of tropical moisture.

4. BERMUDA GOT HIT HARD, TOO.

It’s not just the southeastern United States that got it bad this year. Bermuda is a tiny island—just a little smaller than Manhattan—that sits a few hundred miles off the coast of North Carolina. They’ve had some pretty close calls in the past, but it’s hard for the center of a hurricane to hit this small speck in the middle of a vast ocean.

Hard as it is, Hurricane Nicole managed to do just that this year, with the eye of this major hurricane passing directly over the island and its 65,000 residents. The entire island experienced wind gusts of more than 100 mph while the eye passed overhead. Thankfully, Bermuda is resilient and well-prepared for bad storms, so damage from this storm was relatively minimal.

Nicole wasn’t the only storm to hit Bermuda in recent years. Hurricanes Fay and Gonzalo both made landfall on the island nation during the same week in October 2014; this back-to-back blow caused extensive damage across the island. Hurricane Joaquin in October 2015 also came perilously close to the island, causing some minor damage as it passed the west of the island.

5. HURRICANE MATTHEW WAS HISTORICALLY HORRIFIC.

Hurricane Matthew near peak intensity on September 30, 2016. Image Credit: NASA/NOAA

 
The worst storm of the year was Hurricane Matthew, a monstrous Category 5 hurricane that exploded in the Caribbean and came within miles of causing a catastrophe in the United States. Matthew was originally forecast to remain a minimal hurricane as it entered the central Caribbean Sea at the beginning of September, but the storm took advantage of calm winds, ample moisture, and record-warm ocean waters to exceed forecasts beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.

Matthew rapidly grew from a strong tropical storm with 70 mph winds to a scale-topping beast with 160 mph winds in just 24 hours, and it maintained that strength as it closed in on the Greater Antilles. The hurricane crashed into Haiti on October 5 as a strong Category 4 storm, causing unspeakable destruction to the small towns that dot the hillsides on the country’s western shores. Entire towns were leveled by Matthew’s intense winds and storm surge, and some estimates figure that more than 1000 people died as a result.

It looked like Hurricane Matthew would repeat its destruction by making landfall in Florida as a major hurricane, but the powerful core of the storm stayed just a few miles offshore as it paralleled the Florida shoreline, sparing most coastal communities from the worst effects. Matthew eventually came inland in South Carolina, where the main threat transitioned from wind to flooding. Even still, eastern parts of North Carolina were devastated by the worst flooding in recent memory after the storm dropped more than a foot of rain in some locations. The floods killed dozens of people and caused so much damage that some school districts couldn’t restart classes until nearly three weeks after the hurricane.

6. HURRICANE OTTO MADE AN UNUSUAL MOVE.

The last storm of the season was also a bit surprising in that it strengthened far beyond what forecasters initially expected. The hurricane developed from an area of disturbed weather that sat off the coast of Nicaragua for a week, then quickly spinning itself into a borderline major hurricane before making landfall near the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Most storms dissipate when they move inland, but Otto retained its hurricane strength as it moved across Nicaragua, and its eye emerged in the eastern Pacific Ocean a day later. Hurricane Otto is only the seventh storm in recorded history to move across Central America from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and only the second storm to maintain its strength as it crossed land. The most recent storm to accomplish this feat was Hurricane Cesar-Douglas, 20 years earlier in 1996. Cesar-Douglas has two names because convention at the time was to rename a storm once it crossed ocean basins—it was called Cesar in the Atlantic and renamed Douglas once it moved into the Pacific. 

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Bess Lovejoy
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Weird
The Legend (and Truth) of the Voodoo Priestess Who Haunts a Louisiana Swamp
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Bess Lovejoy

The Manchac wetlands, about a half hour northwest of New Orleans, are thick with swamp ooze. In the summer the water is pea-green, covered in tiny leaves and crawling with insects that hide in the shadows of the ancient, ghost-gray cypress trees. The boaters who enter the swamps face two main threats, aside from sunstroke and dehydration: the alligators, who mostly lurk just out of view, and the broken logs that float through the muck, remnants of the days when the swamp was home to the now-abandoned logging town of Ruddock.

But some say that anyone entering the swamp should beware a more supernatural threat—the curse of local voodoo queen Julia Brown. Brown, sometimes also called Julie White or Julia Black, is described in local legend as a voodoo priestess who lived at the edge of the swamp and worked with residents of the town of Frenier. She was known for her charms and her curses, as well as for singing eerie songs with her guitar on her porch. One of the most memorable (and disturbing) went: "One day I’m going to die and take the whole town with me."

Back when Brown was alive at the turn of the 20th century, the towns of Ruddock, Frenier, and Napton were prosperous settlements clustered on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain, sustained by logging the centuries-old cypress trees and farming cabbages in the thick black soil. The railroad was the towns' lifeline, bringing groceries from New Orleans and hauling away the logs and cabbages as far as Chicago. They had no roads, no doctors, and no electricity, but had managed to carve out cohesive and self-reliant communities.

That all changed on September 29, 1915, when a massive hurricane swept in from the Caribbean. In Frenier, where Julia lived, the storm surge rose 13 feet, and the winds howled at 125 miles an hour. Many of the townsfolk sought refuge in the railroad depot, which collapsed and killed 25 people. Altogether, close to 300 people in Louisiana died, with almost 60 in Frenier and Ruddock alone. When the storm cleared on October 1, Frenier, Ruddock, and Napton had been entirely destroyed—homes flattened, buildings demolished, and miles of railway tracks washed away. One of the few survivors later described how he’d clung to an upturned cypress tree and shut his ears against the screams of those drowning in the swamp.

The hurricane seemed to come out of nowhere. But if you listen to the guides who take tourists into the Manchac swamp, the storm was the result of the wrath of Julia Brown. Brown, they say, laid a curse on the town because she felt taken for granted—a curse that came true when the storm swept through on the day of her funeral and killed everyone around. On certain tours, the guides take people past a run-down swamp graveyard marked "1915"—it’s a prop, but a good place to tell people that Brown’s ghost still haunts the swamp, as do the souls of those who perished in the hurricane. The legend of Julia Brown has become the area's most popular ghost story, spreading to paranormal shows and even Reddit, where some claim to have seen Brown cackling at the edge of the water.

After I visited the swamp earlier this year and heard Julia Brown's story, I got curious about separating fact from fiction. It turns out Julia Brown was a real person: Census records suggest she was born Julia Bernard in Louisiana around 1845, then married a laborer named Celestin Brown in 1880. About 20 years later, the federal government gave her husband a 40-acre homestead plot to farm, property that likely passed on to Julia after her husband’s death around 1914.

Official census and property records don’t make any mention of Brown’s voodoo work, but that's not especially surprising. A modern New Orleans voodoo priestess, Bloody Mary, told Mental Floss she has found references to a voodoo priestess or queen by the name of Brown who worked in New Orleans around the 1860s before moving out to Frenier. Mary notes that because the towns had no doctors, Brown likely served as the local healer (or traiteur, a folk healer in Louisiana tradition) and midwife, using whatever knowledge and materials she could find to care for local residents.

Brown’s song is documented, too. An oral history account from long-time area resident Helen Schlosser Burg records that "Aunt Julia Brown … always sat on her front porch and played her guitar and sang songs that she would make up. The words to one of the songs she sang said that one day, she would die and everything would die with her."

There’s even one newspaper account from 1915 that describes Brown's funeral on the day of the storm. In the words of the New Orleans Times-Picayune from October 2, 1915 (warning: offensive language ahead):

Many pranks were played by wind and tide. Negroes had gathered for miles around to attend the funeral of ‘Aunt’ Julia Brown, an old negress who was well known in that section, and was a big property owner. The funeral was scheduled … and ‘Aunt’ Julia had been placed in her casket and the casket in turn had been placed in the customary wooden box and sealed. At 4 o’clock, however, the storm had become so violent that the negroes left the house in a stampede, abandoning the corpse. The corpse was found Thursday and so was the wooden box, but the casket never has been found.

Bloody Mary, however, doesn’t think Brown laid any kind of curse on the town. "Voodoo isn’t as much about curses as it is about healing," she says. The locals she has spoken to remember Julia as a beloved local healer, not a revengeful type. In fact, Mary suggests that Julia’s song may have been more warning to the townsfolk than a curse against them. Perhaps Brown even tried to perform an anti-storm ritual and was unable to stop the hurricane before it was too late. Whatever she did, Mary says, it wasn’t out of malevolence. And if she’s still in the swamp, you have less to fear from her than from the alligators.

This story originally ran in 2016.

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Space
The Northern Lights Won’t Be This Bright Again Until 2025
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iStock

If you’ve ever camped out to see the northern lights, you know they can be elusive. They’re only visible on dark, clear nights up north when a solar flare or solar wind shoots particles toward Earth. Seeing the phenomenon live takes a bit of luck, but if spectators wish to boost their chances, now's the time. As Thrillist reports, the aurora borealis is at its peak—and won’t be this bright again until 2025.

The colorful lights that seem to bend in the sky over the Arctic Circle are the product of electrons from the Sun colliding with gases in the planet’s atmosphere. The lights are controlled by the Sun, and because solar activity goes through 11-year cycles, so does the aurora borealis.

The Sun is currently at the end of the maximum stage of its cycle. The increased solar activity makes for northern lights that are more frequent and visible farther south. As the Sun starts to move into its minimum phase of activity, the light show will be harder to see from parts of the world to the south of northern Russia, northern Canada, Alaska, and Scandinavia. The next part of the cycle will last about eight years, with solar activity starting to heat up again around 2025.

On rare occasions, the northern lights can be seen from some of the lower 48 states, like Maine, Michigan, and Washington. But to make sure you catch them in peak season, U.S. residents may have to travel north. Here are a few inexpensive trips you can take to get an eyeful of the spectacle.

[h/t Thrillist]

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